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Improving Student Cognition Through Interaction

Improving Student Cognition Through Interaction

October 31, 2017 | Ron Spreeuwenberg
Research-Based Practical Tips for Educators

Episode 68: How can we apply movement practice to cognition and language development? Dr. Lynne Kenney builds dynamic research-based for students of all ages, with a passion for working with young children. One of her programs helps children build a culture of kindness in the classroom, through evidence backed curriculum. "We feel a duty to bring science into everyday practice". Dr. Kenney provides practical tips for a research-based practices approach in the classroom, such as sequencing, which is so essential to early childhood development.

Find excellent research-based practical activities for preschool teachers through Dr Kenney's website

HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #68 – Lynne Kenney Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Fri. Oct. 27, 2017

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”. Lynne, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

KENNEY: Hey, it's great to be here with you today, Ron.

SPREEUWENBERG: It's great to have you on the show. You have a background in child psychology. How has that shaped some of the work that you're doing today?

KENNEY: Well that’s a really that's a really good question, because I am a pediatric psychologist. There aren't a lot of pediatric psychologists, at least in America. And I've always worked on multi-disciplinary teams. So while I was trained in child psychology – and my doctorate is in general psychology – I've worked with occupational therapists, physical therapists, developmental pediatricians my whole life. So I have to say that the speech pathologist and occupational therapist with whom I've worked have really shaped the research said I'm interested in and the activities that we wright in all of our books.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. So having [those] different perspectives from different experts in different fields has helped you?

KENNEY: Yeah, it's been wonderful, because in any specific field you can be kind of silo’d, paying attention to only the research in that field. But we pay attention to research in kinesiology, auditory neurobiology, all sorts of broad areas. And I really have to credit the OT’s and the SLP’s for bringing those bodies of literature front-of-mind for me.

SPREEUWENBERG: And I guess in particular with early-childhood education, we all know that focusing on development across all the domains is super-important. So that's interesting that also sort of from the more academic perspective that that has been beneficial for you.

So you have spent quite a bit of time in the research space, and we love research-based practices in early-childhood education. Have you also spent any time on the practical side?

KENNEY: Yes. So I have been in practice since 1994, and for the ten years before that I when I was in graduate school I worked in the inner city of Los Angeles. So I have had the benefit of seeing children from… gosh, four months of age to 17 years of age for, gosh, 30 years now.

SPREEUWENBERG: Wow. And so you've taken your research, you've taken your practical experience, and what's the focus of your work today, bringing that all together?

KENNEY: Well, I started out as a general clinician, a regular child therapist – kids come in and we would play, etc. etc. And that was back 30 years ago. And what I observed… I happen, Ron, to have a master's degree from USC in physical education, and I got that before I got my doctorate. And I noticed 30 years ago that if I bounced balls or if we shot basketballs, children opened up with greater ease. And so I started to be really interested in, Why does bouncing balls and even playing tennis… I mean, I’ve swam with children, I’ve played tennis with children. I really started to go, “Gosh, this is different than general… what I was trained basically in graduate school.

And it turns out that, especially in the past maybe five years since FMRI has improved and they're using diffusion tensor imaging, we're really learning that movement is very important not only for language development but for cognition. And so I now… my work now is really interesting. What I do is I teach applied activities to professionals all over the world – I just got back from China – to enhance self-regulation, cognition and thinking skills in children. The specific population that I love to work with most is about four years of age to nine, but I'm about to go meet some high schoolers on Friday and we'll be doing these motor-to-cognition activities with them in a high school. So it really does work for everybody, even up to, like, somebody who's 70 to 85 years of age.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. What always fascinates me about conversations with folks like yourself is, I always feel like there's so much more we’re just starting to learn about development in the earliest years, and development across all age groups. We're really just at the tip of the iceberg, I feel like sometimes.

KENNEY: Yeah. So in in a lot of ways the occupational therapists and physical therapists knew 30 years ago that we move to think. And there are actually publications that go back that long, that far ago. But only recently in the past five years are we really applying the movement literature and the auditory neuroscience literature to child development. So it's very exciting. Like, I've got this really killer preschool… it's a six-hour training that I just wrote, and I'm going to do it – I'm starting in the winter – all across the United States. And we're going to be incorporating music, movement and narrative language in order to improve children's thinking skills. So I really have to say, Ron, that because of social media and all of us interacting in Scotland and England and South Africa and China, all of us are interacting together. And I think that it's really improving the application of science to the everyday practice of our preschool teachers and early educators.

SPREEUWENBERG: That's actually fascinating, so let's stay on that one for a moment. I noticed that you put quite a bit of effort into your own digital content. You have social networks, you've got a website, and it looks like you spend quite a bit of your time or effort at making sure that your work is received in the community and that conversation is happening. Why is that important to you?

KENNEY: Well I really feel like all of us are ambassadors on behalf of children. And when we apply research to practice, and we actually have wonderful activities – not just me, I mean, there's also Michelle Garcia Winner, Leah Kuypers – there are so many of us who before social media, before 2009, we were all just working individually with our individual clients. Well now we can all be force multipliers, and we can improve the lives of children all around the world with these research-based tools, strategies and activities. So I feel like I feel a duty. And I do all my social media by myself/ I don't have a team; I do it, everything I write, everything I post. Either I create it or our graphic designer Megan Garcia creates it, or then Wendy [Young] who is the co-author in Bloom [50 Things to Say, Think and Do with Anxious, Angry and Over-the-Top Kids], and then Rebecca Comizio is my co-author on 70 Play Activities. So we just feel a duty to the children and to the educators to bring the science to everyday practice.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, it's awesome. And I always want to encourage our listeners and all early-childhood educators out there to get involved in that online community because there is so much great content and great conversations and discussions happening, so we can all be learning about different practices.

So let's get into that. You mentioned applied activities. Let's talk a little bit more about practical tips and suggestions for early-childhood educators when it comes to research-based development and practices.

KENNEY: I interact with a lot of early-educators, and it was so great when I got your question: What would be some practical tips? I think there are three things that I would love early educators to know that maybe people aren't talking about that much. The first thing that we really need to know is that the limbic system in a young child's brain is basically evaluating, “Am I safe, vulnerable or dangerous?” in a matter of milliseconds as they walk into a classroom or as you greet them at the door. And so I think that step one is to really make sure that we're creating emotionally and physically safe social environments for our children. And we just wrote Bloom Your Room – actually the galleys are just going to print right now, so it should be out by about October 15th. And basically it's an art collection and activity collection that's an extension of our book Bloom that encourages teachers to create cultures of kindness in the classrooms, and teach children what the actual interactive skills are that help everybody feel safe, connected, collaborative and well-cared for. So I think that that emotional safety piece is the first important part.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. And I know a lot of educators out there know that providing children with a safe environment, and the general environment being a place where they feel comfortable is important. But again linking that back to Why and the research behind it is interesting. Okay, so, number two?

KENNEY: Yeah and I think that, Ron, the important part here that I hear… people e-mail me, and I love it, and I talk with them on Twitter and on Facebook and we put a lot of research on our Facebook page. The thing that I used to hear the most from teachers was, “I buy into all of this, Lynne, and you are speaking to the choir. I'm just not sure what to say, think, or do. So tell me, in the moment when the kid’s melting down or in the moment [when] the kid’s just hit the other kid, what do I say, think, and do?” And that's why in Bloom we wrote 200 mantras, and we extend that in Bloom your Room because I totally get that. Sometimes it's confusing, and everyone thinks, “Well, we’ve got to consequence the kid into a new behavior.” But the truth is that we teach children. We fill them with skills through our personhood – that's why early educators are so important. The relationship is just central to the brain's ability to learn these social, emotional and cognitive skills. So that's the exciting part about our current work, is that we're really trying to give you tools instead of just giving you a philosophy.


KENNEY: The other thing that I really… and I know that the teachers who are listening can relate to this – you’re so powerful within the classroom that you actually are improving your students’ cognition simply by the way you're interacting. And as an example, you can use narrative language – that is, what you actually say to the children – in order to improve their thinking skills on the spot. And there are three things that I usually teach the teachers in my six-hour brain workshop, and that is that you can teach children, as an example, sequencing skills. Sequencing is an executive function that's very important to child development. And sequencing is so simple, Ron. It's just the understanding that things come in order. First we do this, then we do that, then we do this, right? Everything is as simple as one, two, three.

And when children start to recognize that their life is full of sequences and patterns, they're better able not only to think but to exhibit inhibitory control. So the example that I give is that if I have a child – a preschool kid – who is highly energetic and gets so excited when they come to school that they just run into the classroom and they barrel over everyone's Legos or blocks, what I do is I stand at the door and I say, “Jonathan, let's breathe, because we're going to manage our energy right now. Let's breathe and let's look at the classroom. Step one: Look at the classroom and make a decision about where we're going to walk to, in what order.” So we have him preview – we call it reading the landscape, or reading the room, is what Sarah Ward calls it. And then he understands that looking is Step One. Making a choice regarding where you're going to go to Step Two, and then actually taking the action to get there and choosing your path is Step Three.

That simple act… see, what we do, I think we make a mistake of saying, “Slow down, or, “Make a better choice” – I hear that a lot. If the child could make a better choice he'd make a better choice. So what we want to do is make the executive function skill of sequencing and understanding this easy as one, two, three. We want to make it so transparent that the child is better able to manage his own body by learning as an example of sequencing skill.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. And it makes sense when you think about it. Now, speaking of sequencing, was that tip number two? Or is that still coming?

KENNEY: No, so… one thing that we like to teach is sequencing: “What's the One, Two, Three of this action?” And then I love to help children tie a bow on things. So when the child is able to read the landscape, make choice about the path he's going to go to, and then when he gets there properly and he hasn't run over everyone's blocks we walk up to him and we signal with our hands that we're wrapping a bow on it. That he actually used his exact executive function skill – the skill that we've talked about because he's his brain’s best coach – he used it really effectively and efficiently. And we tie a bow on it and we give him a high-five, and now he's becoming the best coach for his own brain and his own body. And the children get so excited by it. It's so much more effective than, “Well, there was a better choice,” or… you know what I mean?

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, completely. And you explain it really well, sort of this concept that I think a lot of educators are familiar with, which is, we want to move from this mentality of teaching children to them teaching themselves, almost, and you're just there as a conduit to help empower that, really.

KENNEY: That's exactly true. Then the other thing – and I know that we don't have that much time. So the other thing that I really like to talk with preschool teachers and elementary school teachers about is helping children experience the felt sense of slowing down. Because most of the kids I work with have attention or learning challenges, and they tend to have high energy levels and they don't self-regulate well. So in musical thinking we actually created two musical notes: Quick Rick and Slow Mo. And we actually use these musical notes, and you don't even physically need them; you just need to know the concept. We help children experience physically what it feels like to move quickly and to move slowly. We can do that with marching; we can do that with drumming; we can do that with clapping; we can do it with lunging.

So Quick Rick is basically in a 4/4 measure. He is a quarter note – one, two, three, four. And Slo Mo is a half note. So once we physically march with the children or lunge with the children or move with the children to show them the difference between moving in quarter notes and moving in half notes, then you have a communication strategy, Ron. You can say to a child, “You're about to raise your hand because the teacher’s asked a question. Do you want to raise your hand in Quick Rick, or shall we be moving in Slo Mo?” And I really like teaching children that strategy because now they know what it feels like to slow down.

SPREEUWENBERG: Right. And it just kind of goes full circle with what you're talking about earlier with how closely movement is connected with thinking and learning, right?

KENNEY: Exactly, exactly.

SPREEUWENBERG: Very cool. Okay, that covers all some excellent, practical tips. And I think you also mentioned you have a couple of books that you've authored or coauthored that also have some great practical tips. Maybe you could just speak to those quickly, and where people might be able to find them?

KENNEY: Sure. All our books are on Amazon or on my website. They're easy to find. Bloom is the parenting book that we wrote, and the Bloom philosophy permeates everything we do. Right now I'm making what's called the Kinetic Classroom, which is going to be an online training portal in order to – everybody is going to have access to it – help people kind of use more movement in order to enhance cognition. And the Bloom philosophy just underlines everything.

70 Play Activities is the book that took me four years to write. Rebecca Comizio wrote some of the executive function activities in it, and it really is the body of all of our cognition work. So it's called 70 Play Activities. And then Bloom Your Room is our social-emotional art collection, and that will be coming out next month. So hopefully we're providing educators with applied research, and really, truly practical tools and strategies that they can use every day in order to improve the cognition and the social-emotional lives of children.

SPREEUWENBERG: Which we love on the Preschool Podcast, so thank you. And one more question… I know you've already given us a lot of advice and great tips for our educators out there. What's your one tip to early-childhood educators just starting out their careers entering the field of early-childhood education? Do you have any advice for them?

KENNEY: I do. I think that right now we are in such an overwhelming information age that sometimes you can feel inadequate in the beginning, like you don't know enough. And so what I just want everyone to know is that your personhood – how you enter a room, how you view the children, how you get down at eye-level and interact with them – your kindness and caring, that within you makes you a pivotal agent of change. So if you're ever feeling like you don't know enough, just be your very best true self, and that is just a terrific beginning.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. Great advice, Lynne. And if people want to find you online to learn more about your work and your books or any of your other activities, where would they best find you?

KENNEY: Well my website is my name: www.LynneKenney.com. We're really active on Facebook – it's Dr. Lynne Kenney. And I send out research and tweets and activities on Twitter as well [@DrLynneKenney].

SPREEUWENBERG: Lynne, this has been a wonderful conversation. I absolutely love having the conversations where we connect research and science – the Why? of development with practical tips for educators. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

KENNEY: Hey, my honor. It was a joy to speak with you. Thank you so much.

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